Monday, June 10, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.5: Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 86/A-

Much like The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai started out as just a job, something Orson Welles took on to get work and, in this case, to repay Harry Cohn, who bailed out his financially disastrous stage musical of Around the World in Eighty Days. Unlike The Stranger, however, Welles was determined to put his distinctive stamp on the project. What initially seemed like a can’t miss prospect (pulpy material, Welles then-wife Rita Hayworth) turned out to be another one of Welles’ “weird” projects, and Cohn cut an hour of material out of the finished film and tinkered around with it. The compromised version of the film is more flawed than Welles’ earlier triumphs as a result, but it’s still a vital piece of work from one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

Irishman Michael O’Hara (Welles) saves the beautiful Elsa (Hayworth) from a group of hoodlums in Central Park. Elsa is the wife of disabled high-profile criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and when she learns that Michael has experience as a sailor, she convinces him to work for them on their yacht as they go to San Francisco through the Panama Canal. Bannister’s partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) joins them, and he has an interesting proposition for O’Hara- help him fake his own death $5,000. O’Hara would have to confess to Grisby’s murder, but so long as no body showed up, he couldn’t be convicted (this was true in 1947). O’Hara is reluctant, but he agrees so that he can take the money and run away with Elsa. Of course, this is a noir, and any plot for monetary gain in a noir is going to go terribly, terribly wrong.

The studio interference on Lady is significant not only for how much they snipped, but also for what they added. The most immediately noticeable drawback to the film is composer Heinz Roemheld’s intrusive score, which is generically romantic and lush in what’s an often grim film. Just as bad- the narration, which has one or two choice lines but is mostly overly expository, trying to make sense of a film that’s going for strangeness and isn’t helped by Welles’ unconvincing Irish accent (to be fair, that’s Welles’ fault). Still, the biggest problem may be the stop-start pacing, no doubt caused by taking out an hour’s worth of material. What was likely a fluid, deliberately paced 2 ½ hours is now a choppily edited 87 minutes.

But bad narration, music, and editing isn’t enough to sink the film, much like Welles’ questionable accent doesn’t change how charming and appropriately hapless he is in the role. The other players are even better- Welles saw Sloane as primarily a radio actor who didn’t move well on film, so his choice to restrict the actor’s movement to crutches aids the actor’s bizarre performance. It’s a role that takes the creepy noir millionaire archetypes and pushes it to perverse glory. Anders is nearly as good as a character who brings in a sleazy sort of menace and uneasiness. It is Hayworth, however, who is the film’s icy heart- Welles’ decision to chop her trademark red hair and bleach it blonde was controversial at the time, but it’s that decision that gives Hayworth the chance to lose the superstar baggage and play up the role’s mixture of sadness and danger.

That mixture of sadness and danger defines not only Elsa, but the world of the film. From the beginning, Elsa is clearly a woman trapped and alone in her marriage to a cruel drunk of a man of shady repute, while Michael is a character whose past covering the Spanish Civil War has taken away any of the leftist idealism he might have had. They’re lonely people in a miserable existence. Yet there’s a dangerous quality to both of them- O’Hara is virile enough and strong enough to pose a threat to Bannister and Grisby, and there’s something about Elsa that hints that she has an agenda of her own. Even Bannister has that same mixture. He’s a disgusting man, one who holds his riches as a sign he can do what he wants. But he’s clearly a miserable man, one who drinks in order to escape his unhappiness, and a man with a clear perspective that without money, he’d be “lying flat on [his] back in the ward of a county hospital”. The way he and Elsa tear into each other only underlines how their money has failed to make them happy. The rich, as O’Hara says, are worse than “sharks feeding on themselves”

This being a Welles film, however, it’s as much about the formal elements of the film as it is the content. Welles’ relentlessly witty screenplay has more than its share of stylish noir lines, but it’s also notable for how Welles pushes the genre into truly bizarre territory. In his first two films, Welles had certain overlap with Bertolt Brecht, who often used techniques that would call attention to themselves in order to alienate the audience and give them a clearheaded critical distance. Welles was more overtly influenced by Brecht at this point, and he plays up the alienating formal devices to the nth degree. Welles of practically turns Anders and Sloane into creepy, continually sweating gargoyles, tormenting O’Hara and Elsa, but he also uses a close-up of a sad-eyed Elsa staring into the camera, singing a sad song to distance the audience, as if we’re supposed to be both taken with her plight and slightly suspicious of her. Welles plays with deep focus in more overtly Brechtian ways, changing focal points in the middle of a deal between O’Hara and Grisby to show who’s in power.

Three sequences in particular highlight the bizarre, formal genius of The Lady from Shanghai. In the first, Welles takes the moral ambiguity of the noir genre and amplifies it in a strange courtroom scene. O’Hara has been put on trial for the (real) murder of Grisby, and Bannister has agreed to defend him. Welles uses a crane shots and wide shots to exaggerate Bannister’s eccentricity, occasionally cutting to the trial’s audience to bring in darkly comic commentary. Then things get weird as Bannister is called to testify by the prosecutor, and, shortly thereafter, cross-examines himself. Welles takes the world-out-of-order quality of noir and brings it into what should be the rational center. If the world of the film is a darkly comic farce, Welles opines, why shouldn’t the courtroom be? The exaggerated sense of justice gone wrong brings an even greater alienating effect to a genre of alienation.

In the second scene, O’Hara has escaped to a Chinese Theatre, a type of theatre that specializes in alienating the audience and giving them a critical remove. Here, O’Hara finally gets his own critical remove from his emotionally volatile situation, and he gets a chance to see that it is Elsa, not Bannister, that is the mastermind behind his downfall, with Bannister playing as an unwitting third party in her plot. Meanwhile, the police come looking for O’Hara and Elsa, with the Chinese actors taking notice but carrying on like the professionals they are. In a way, Welles is commenting on the spectator’s own role in the play (or the film)- we may actively root one way or another for what’s happening before us, but we are voyeurs, separated from actually taking part in the action, while the performers carry on regardless of our interest.

Finally, there’s the much celebrated funhouse sequence, originally a twenty-minute tour-de-force of Welles’ filmmaking skills, now sadly cut down to a still impressive two minutes. Now the madness of the world of the film has become literalized in this environment- everything about the house is uncertain, there’s no clear escape route, and anything we might think we have a handle on is an illusion. Welles’ expressionistic gifts are now given the Brechtian treatment- he was always a master of illusion, so now give him the chance to work with real illusions. It’s a masterful mixture of image and sound as O’Hara finally faces his foes, first Elsa (or several Elsas, giving several hollow “I love you’s” to O’Hara), then, as the squeaks of Bannister’s crutches come in, her husband.

Our noir protagonist is as helpless as any protagonist in the genre’s history as he can only watch these two destroy each other. The mirrors crack and crumble as the illusions are destroyed, but there’s real carnage in their wake as both husband and wife are killed. Elsa’s death is particularly grim as she refuses to accept what’s coming to her. Welles’ narration comes back in and sours the grim mood, but as with Welles’ other damaged projects, the tone of the film’s content overshadows the studio’s meddling. O’Hara’s true love, if she ever really did love him, is gone, and with that his reason for being is gone. An ending that existentially grim can’t be undone by bad narration.

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